You know that sense of startlement, the one that comes from a sudden, illuminating new perspective on the life-lessons you absorbed as you grew up?
As we lit our Christmas tree this year, I was startled by this new thought: did my mother suffer from burnout?
I grew up in a wonderful leaky, creaky old house. At that time, our family could rarely afford the repairs the house constantly needed. In particular, the house's wiring was terrible.
One of my less-good childhood memories is of how frequently our Christmas tree lights burned out the master fuse. Every Christmas, the same thing. When the fuse blew, it abruptly plunged our household into pitch-black darkness.
It was usually my job to change the fuse. Grumpily, I’d grope around until I located a candle or a flashlight. Then I’d descend into the cold concrete basement and navigate the boxes and broken appliances to the fuse box behind the furnace.
But when I was growing up, the word burnout was never used in the sense we mean it, now.
My mom was certainly an amazing role model. In the teeth of loneliness, disability, pain, single parenthood and debt, my mother built an innovative and respected business – from her home — that still lives on, well past her death.
When I was a kid, as I walked in from school, I’d often find my mother sitting at the kitchen table with her head in her hands.
I thought then – and I still believe, now – that she was struggling with depression.
My new, startling thought: I wonder if some of that depression might better have been called burnout.
As children and adolescents always do, I unconsciously soaked up many lessons, good and less-good, from my mom’s determined example.
- Old-fashioned manners: I still say “ma’am” and “sir,” on occasion.
- Generosity, integrity, and humor. To her core, she believed these values are critical to a successful business and a good life.
- Independence: in that era, the usual female careers were receptionist, waitress, teacher, and nurse. (She told me some stories about her stints as a receptionist before I was born. But the only (paid) work I ever saw her do was run her own business.)
- Grit and persistence: despite many failures, she built her business through years of consistent effort.
- Survival despite isolation: she enjoyed life principally through books, food and correspondence.
- Work, work, work: As many founders of small businesses do, my mom worked all the time. Every day and every night, if she was awake, she was likely working.
So. Now, I wonder – did my mother perhaps blow some of her own internal fuses, and struggle, alone, through the pitch-dark basement of burnout?
I know she checked at least the first two boxes in the modern triple definition of burnout:
- Emotional exhaustion
- A sense that your work no longer matters in the world
And perhaps, in the dead of night, after we kids were in bed, maybe she felt the third one creeping up on her, as well. I’ll never know for sure. She’s gone, now, and I can only wonder.
Of course, I will always be deeply grateful for the pioneering example my mother set for me. Ultimately, she succeeded brilliantly, despite her very difficult circumstances.
And, with this new perspective on what her success might have cost her, perhaps I’m better able to avoid some of the pitfalls of stress and overwork that she faced. Suspecting this may strengthen my emotional wiring, and make my own mental fuses less vulnerable than hers might have been.
I’m telling you all this because I wonder if many of us might have witnessed possible burnout, without knowing what to call it, when we were growing up.
Do you wonder, now, if one of your parents might have struggled with burnout? Using this lens, how does your perspective shift on the life lessons you absorbed from them?